Billie Holiday or Nina Simone

Drama about the downward spiral in life Billie Holidays

Status: 04/21/2021 8:25 am

The drama "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" is about sex, drugs and jazz. Andra Day is Oscar-nominated for her role as Billie Holiday. The film starts on April 23 as VideoOnDemand.

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by Hartwig Tegeler

The overloaded film by Lee Daniels (USA, 2021) about the jazz icon Billie Holiday is about abandoned concerts, a stay in prison, contact with violent men and the ultimate crash into heroin and alcohol addiction. Andra Day sings the songs terrific, with wonderful phrasing.

"The United States vs. Billie Holiday" is not a classic biopic

Along with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Bessie Smith and Nina Simone, Billie Holiday is without a doubt one of the great singers in jazz history. Her life was a brutal roller coaster ride, which began in the poorest of circumstances, led her to the Olympus of stardom and into the abyss of drug addiction. In Lee Daniel's Billie Holiday film "The United States vs. Billie Holiday", soul and R&B singer Andra Day plays the jazz icon who died in 1959 of cirrhosis of the liver. Andra Day has been nominated for an Oscar 2021 in the category "Best Actress" for this role.

"Strange Fruit" is not just about a song, but about social, class and racist conditions. "Yes, that's a song about important things. Things that are going on in the country. Many people don't know how important these things are to me," says Holliday (aka Anda Day) in the film.

Song "Strange Fruit": Holiday deals with lynching

"Strange Fruit" translates as "strange fruit", made Billie Holiday world famous in the late 1930s and broached the subject of the lynching of African Americans in the USA. The lines "The southern trees bear strange fruits" and "Black body dangling in the southern wind" are as gruesome as they are concise, drastic, as historically realistic. For the FBI, "Strange Fruit" is a political pamphlet that needs to be suppressed:

- But why does this song mean so much to us.
- Hoover says he's un-American. He provokes people. In the wrong way. Dialogue from "The United States vs Billie Holiday"

Billie Holidays downward spiral to death

Sex & Drugs &… no, not rock'n roll yet, but jazz. "The United States against Billie Holiday" tells of canceled concerts, a stay in prison, contact with violent men and the final fall into heroin and alcohol addiction to the last hospital stay where the FBI is still at the bedside of the dying Arrest singer for drug possession. A bizarre scene.

Great Andra Day - nominated for an Oscar for best actress

Andra Day, nominated for the Oscar, sings the songs terrific, in wonderful phrasing, very close to Billie Holiday, but as her own artistic performance. The Billie Holiday she plays is a victim of circumstances, of her past, but not just a victim; she fights against:

- I deleted "Strange Fruit".
- I want to sing the damn song, got it! Dialogue from the movie "The United States vs. Billie Holiday"

It's clear from the start that Lee Daniels wasn't making a classic biopic. The stations of the Holiday life story appear more like flashbacks during the singer's heroin trips, for example when she transforms into little Billie who enters a room from her past where she is forced into prostitution by her mother and then again to emerge, so to speak, into the presence of the successful and persecuted singer.

Film looks like a room that is too crowded

There is, of course, nothing to be said against this dramaturgical form, which tries to undo the clichés of a biopic. But in all of this, the film - even in the perfect reconstruction of the 1940s and 50s - looks like a room that is too crowded. Too many topics, too wild a mix of styles, here a little jail, there a beating partner, flashback to a lynching with historical photos; then the ban on Billie Holiday from performing on stage.

And so, despite the impressive story, despite Andra Day's great play and the wonderfully interpreted songs, the film leaves you strangely cold at the end. As if the center of this historical "black-lives-matter" story, that is, that which consciously, unconsciously makes us look, as if it does not want to unfold.

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NDR culture | Classic in the day | 04/21/2021 | 06:40 am